Football's Existential Crisis

Recently, President Obama admitted he’d have to think hard about whether he’d let a son play football, amidst growing concerns about the safety of the sport. With a keen eye on public opinion, the President is echoing the temperament of the nation. What started in 1985 with the proliferation of “Baby on Board” signs has evolved into a socialized mandate to protect children from any and every potential threat, no matter how obscure or improbable. Even the great American sport of football can’t escape the gravity of our communal desire to protect our precious offspring.

Being among the parent class, I’ve noticed a recent trend wherein, year after year, each successive batch of new parents becomes more protective than the last. If “Baby on Board” signs are good, “Baby-Proofing” your home is better. If protecting your child from bullying is good, home-schooling your child to protect them from the vagaries of the playground is better. With each tragic incident, the media whips up awareness, concern and reaction to the point where, it seems, the only reasonable reaction is to over-react. It doesn’t matter that there is a 0.08% chance that a non-family member will ever abduct your child, the trailer for the movie “Taken” is more than enough to convince most parents that their kids are safer under house arrest.



But back to football. Part of the concern may indeed be based on a growing awareness and understanding of the long-term effects of head injuries. Medical science has linked repeated concussions to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, a progressive, degenerative disease causing memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, aggression, depression and dementia. To date, CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously, but a recent study gives some hope for earlier diagnosis and detection.

With that early detection will come the ability to measure how common the disease is among athletes who participate in contact sports like football and hockey. Until there are hard facts, the implied linkage is enough to convince parents to prevent their kids from playing contact sports.

Youths, likely at the encouragement of their (over) protective parents, have been increasingly turning to individual and non-contact sports like gymnastics, tennis, and soccer. The zeitgeist dissuades risk-taking as the societal pendulum swings to an apogee. It can’t be long until this parental impulse to protect starts heading back toward the center.

We’re already starting to see the early signs of a more balanced debate. Jean Twenge questioned whether our extreme focus on our offspring has led to a sense of narcissism in “Generation Me.” Lenore Skenazy, the Manhattanite mom who permitted her 9-year-old son to ride the subway unattended, has actively hit the speaking circuit in support of her book, Free Range Kids. Similarly, Pamela Druckerman has had the temerity to question whether our singular focus on our children is causing them to develop habits and behaviors that we hadn’t fully intended in Bringing up Bébé.

Maybe I’m less of a parent than the next person, but it seems to me that a balanced viewpoint will serve my family best. There are and always will be risks. The question for any parent is, what level of risk is acceptable in the pursuit of a life well lived?

5 comments about "Football's Existential Crisis".
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  1. Alex Lekas from PTI Security, March 8, 2013 at 10:03 a.m.

    A collision sport may be dangerous. Who knew? Any activity can be hazardous is done incorrectly, from cheerleading to biking and running to, yes, football. For the overwhelming majority of those who play, high school marks the last time they will participate in a tackle game. For those able to play beyond that level, there is no secret or mystery that it is a contact game.

    The only 'existential crisis' lives among the voices in the heads of those who either hate the game or live to manufacture fear of anything bad ever happening to anyone at anytime. Most of life entails some level of risk. If you stop your kids from doing things out of irrational fear, you are robbing them of potentia life lessons.

    Just because football and hockey exist does not mean every child will want to play, any more than it means that soccer, gymnastics, and other sports are injury-free. Trying to shield your child from all possible harm is basically shielding your child from life, and I don't see anyone advocating that.

  2. Michael Selz from Hummingbird Strategy, March 8, 2013 at 10:04 a.m.

    I'm all in favor of moderation and thoughtful debate, but CTE seems more and more like a problem that the NFL has buried for a long time in self interest. The most pernicious part is that, according to the researchers interviewed for a Malcolm Gladwell piece on this a few years ago, the tradition of looking for, and counting concussions misses the point. This condition is brought on by the cumulative effect of every hard hit you've ever taken. That means starting in PeeWee football. Let's focus less on moderate debate and more on getting all the facts. This condition may be way more pervasive than the pro football players and boxers we currently know about.

  3. Brian Lunde from Sana Tyo Marketing, March 8, 2013 at 10:05 a.m.

    As a near empty-nester, I just want to give three cheers for the sentiment of this post. Our culture is tilting toward an obsession with risk-avoidance, fomented by lawyers who sue everyone in sight on the premise that there is no such thing as risk, only negligence. Over-protective parents harm their children by creating a false sense of both security and entitlement to a risk-free life. This robs kids of the chance to develop the resilience and character that can only come from experiencing the bumps and bruises of real life. Tracy, I agree with you that a balanced viewpoint is the best approach and you will be more, not less of a parent for doing so.

  4. Chris Vinson from Vinson Advertising, March 8, 2013 at 11:25 a.m.

    Over protection levels differ with geography and social class. I was raised Cajun on the bayous with free reign and I can think of 10 or more times I could have easily died. And 4 of my friends did (Drowned in separate unsupervised accidents). In contrast, here in California we noticed the friends of our children all had to have supervised play dates. But there are neighborhoods here where great quantities of children are not supervised at all. We need to met in the middle. The effect of the media induced scare is we will have fewer middle and upper class kids playing football.

  5. Martha Steger from Editorial Services, March 11, 2013 at 8:57 p.m.

    This is a strange piece: The author seems intent on connecting the intensified concern over football with overreacting parents and narcissism—that doesn’t make much sense to me.

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